Idolatry and the sanctity of whatever

The coming and going of Good Friday and the imminence of Easter has prompted some musings about sanctity. Sanctity is the quality or state of being holy or sacred. I run into a lot of sanctity when engaged in political debate with serious-minded people. For free-market economists there is the sanctity of contracts and of property rights. For right-to-lifers there is the sanctity of life. We hear of the sacred bond of matrimony. We all know of the Holy Land. Holy cities are a dime a dozen: for Muslims it includes Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. For Christians and Jews, Jerusalem. For Hindus Varanasi – Benares – Kaasi. There are holy rivers, from the river Jordan to the Ganges. Roman Catholics used to have holy water (I don’t know whether they still do). There are, God forbid, holy wars. There are reputed to be holy men and women, although I have never encountered any. There are sacred oaths and sacred honour.

Permit me this spontaneous outburst of self-righteousness, delivered from a simplistic protestant perspective: a pox, pest and plague on all those who claim holiness, sacredness or sanctity for any cause, anyone, any being or anything other than the One God. All other claims to sanctity and holiness are blasphemous. Nothing is sacred, except the One God.

If some benighted Cardinal speaks of the sanctity of life in support of his crusade against the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill before the UK Parliament, he is guilty of idolatry. Life is not sacred. Treating life as divine is heathen behaviour – paganism. In all Abrahamic religions, and in many of the interpretations of Hinduism, only the One God is sacred. The Christian faith teaches (straight from the Tanakh) that the two great commandments are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind …and … Love your neighbour as yourself. All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

All the rest is interpretation and rationalisation. Whenever church dogma, creed, doctrine or cathecism conflict with these two great commandments, the dogma, dogma, creed, doctrine or cathecism are void and should be ignored. There obviously are circumstances where the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself conflicts with the sanctity of life.

Assisted voluntary euthanasia (suicide) for the terminally ill and suffering is a prime example of the strangely anti-Christian nature of current doctrine in the Roman Catholic church and in quite a number of other allegedly Christian churches. The commandment that we love our neighbour as ourselves defines how a Christian should relate to other people. It takes precedence over everything else. Therefore it is a Christian duty to assist a terminally ill, mentally competent person who wishes to die, in achieving a gentle death. The same Christian ethics dictates that, under certain circumstances, it is one’s duty as a Christian to assist women seeking an abortion. The same again applies, under certain circumstances, to medical research involving experimenting on embryos. This does not mean that anything goes or that life is cheap. It means that the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself may lead to agonising dilemmas and heart-rending choices.

None of these issues are ever straightforward. The best that can be achieved may be very bad. In any specific set of circumstances, one may conclude that, as far as one is able to judge, a specific planned suicide, abortion or medical experiment involving embryos is wrong. But any attempt to deny people the right to make these agonising choices by appealing to the sanctity of life, is evil and un-Christian. Belief in the sanctity of life is, from a Christian perspective, idolatry. After all, Christ gave his life for our salvation. If He had believed in the sanctity of life, He would have cut a deal with Pontius Pilate.

The same holds for the Holy Land and Holy Cities that Islam, Christianity and Judaism have been fighting for since the early Middle Ages. No land or city is holy or sacred. Only God is holy. So please stop hiding behind the God of the Tanakh, the Bible and the Koran, and recognise the argument is about real estate.

Holy wars are a contradiction in terms. Sacred cows should be sacrificed and eaten in a communal feast. Love, of God and one’s neighbour, are the only absolutes. And the meaning of those absolutes in any concrete situation is often far from clear. What surprises me is how often representatives of established religions, be it the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Church of England luminaries, assorted Chief Rabbis and countless Mullahs and Ayatollahs, are happy to blaspheme and engage in idolatry by claiming sanctity, holiness and sacredness not for the One God, but for their pet cause, crusade or jihad of the moment. A plague on all their houses.

Happy Easter!

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website